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A blueprint for disruption: Freelancer college

The futurist forecasts traditional universities will become a thing of the past


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Parents often ask me what their kids should be studying in college. The answer, however, is never as straightforward as they’d like.

If a parent’s primary objective is for their kid(s) to find a job, they should drop out today. Universities don’t exist to get your kid a job; well, at least not directly. There are many ways to obtain job skills, but traditional college is usually the slowest and most expensive method.

In fact, many of the highest paying jobs in fields like computer programming, cyber security, real estate and so on don’t require a degree at all.

Virtually any bright student can learn a marketable skill in less than six months. This means he or she could have several years of work experience by the time their counterparts graduate from college.

Once a person has a marketable skill, they can begin to take control their destiny, and start themselves down the path to becoming a freelancer.

Yes, there’s a big difference between a newbie freelancer and one who’s a total rockstar, but it all begins with taking that first bold step, and that’s where life’s journey begins to make sense.

Freelancer college, as I’m envisioning it, will be an intensive one-week course, where students begin this life-altering experience in a room filled with other wannabe free agents.

As the gig economy grows, independent workers will need to surround themselves with a network of likeminded solopreneurs and that initial classroom training is a great place to start forming such a network.

The first thing that you, as a student, will learn is to take control of your life. As the owner/manager of “you incorporated,” every decision becomes a business decision. Being “in charge” changes how you talk about yourself, who your friends are, your buying decisions and your priorities.

The course will guide you through a roadmap of tools, systems and techniques to forge an effective business model. But this is no ordinary set of instructions. It morphs, shifts and changes with you for the rest of your life.

This should not be thought of as a restrictive pathway to trailblazing a future. Instead, freelancer college will likely become one of the most fertile approaches to continually build your opportunity landscape.

Creativity is a critical component in every freelancer’s toolkit

You don’t need to be an expert

Freelancers come in all shapes and sizes, and few young people will have the critical skills to command a high salary.

Easy entry points include day labor positions, like offering a home laundry service, moving furniture, mowing lawns, walking dogs or personal concierge. In each of these situations, a handful of good clients can launch a productive freelance career.

Freelancer college learning modules

As with any multi-dimensional form of training, there are a variety of topics to focus on. Here are a few critical skills that most people will need early on.

  • Fan club management – Everyone has a fan club, a circle of friends who cheer them along life’s journey. Developing a productive social network and learning how to grow, manage and interact with it, becomes an important piece of the freelancer equation.
  • How to create a website - Every freelancer will need a website along with good copy and at least one video. An effective website will leave impressions highlighting unique characteristics, but most will need a crystal clear explanation of what you’re selling, great testimonials, past client list and some form of a “buy now” button.
  • Marketing and lead generation 101 – Who are your ideal clients? Where do they live? What do they read; what do they watch; what income do they make; where is the best place to randomly bump in to them? There are many leads groups to introduce you to the people you need to know.
  • How to produce low cost videos – Posting a video or series of videos on Facebook, YouTube and your website is an essential part of getting started.
  • How to price your services – While you may think you’re offering a valuable service, clients will often have a different opinion.
  • Creating a business proposal –If you submit a proposal, you have the advantage of controlling the terms of the deal.
  • Contract negotiations – Having a boilerplate, fill-in-the-blank contract is an easy way to start, but it also needs to give the impression that you know what you’re doing.
  • Understanding legal entities – Should your business be set up as a sole proprietorship, partnership, C Corp, S Corp, LLP or LLC? Should it be a for-profit or nonprofit business, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?
  • Networking tips and tricks – Learning to meet and greet prospective clients is indeed an art form.
  • Social media management – Social media is not only a business tool but also a service you can offer to prospective clients.
  • Overview of back-office technology – The right configuration of tools and gear can save you huge amounts of time.
  • How to build a referral network – Even a half-dozen people who regularly refer clients can be worth their weight in gold. But referrals go both ways, so be prepared to give more than you get.
  • Accounting 101 – What’s the best way to invoice and track expenses? If you’re not good at managing your own books, find someone who is.
  • How to manage the emotional side of business – Rejection is never easy, and getting criticism and bad reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook is hard to take. Virtually every successful entrepreneur has someone they can lean on for advice, solve problems and answer critical questions.

Ongoing education

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking colleges know what’s best for you. Sadly, colleges don’t always know what’s best for you, only you do.

That’s what sets Freelancer College apart, because it’s all about you and turning your talents into marketable business opportunities.

Millions of people around the globe are opting for greater independence in their work lives. As a result, they are joining the gig economy. Advances in technology have made it easier to launch, grow, and manage these types of businesses than ever before.

Here are a few stats about the growing gig economy:

  • Researchers project that over half of the working U.S. population will be part of the gig economy within the next five years.
  • One-third of U.S. office workers have a second job and more than half (56 percent) predict they will have multiple jobs in the future.
  • More than one-third of millennials are already independent workers.
  • By 2025, over 75 percent of the workforce will be comprised of millennials.
  • Nearly 80 percent of freelancers use social media as a means of finding work.
  • Researchers have concluded that nearly all of the net job growth in the economy since 2005 has been in freelance and alternative work arrangements.
  • The European Union saw a 45 percent increase in the number of independent workers from 2012 to 2013.
  • India’s independent workforce, the second largest in the world, currently has about 40 percent of the world’s freelance jobs.

Accomplishment-based education

The best learning always occurs when you have a project where you can instantly apply the things you learn.

Writing a book, receiving a patent or starting a business are all noteworthy symbols of achievement today. But being the author of a book that sells 50,000 copies, or inventing a product that 1 million people buy, or building a business that grosses over $10 million in annual sales are all significant accomplishments far more meaningful than their academic equivalents.

Academic competitions pit students against one another to produce results that best match their teacher’s expectations. Only rarely will they produce anything noteworthy.

Completing a class is nothing more than a symbol of achievement. Similarly, completing many classes and receiving a diploma is noteworthy, but still only a vague representation of a real accomplishment.

No, this doesn’t mean that classroom training has no value. But, what we achieve in a classroom is at least one level of abstraction removed from a real-world accomplishment.

In the business world, it’s only an accomplishment if someone is willing to pay for it.

The global marketplace is not looking for people who have learned how to be great students. It wants results.

Criteria for graduation

Those who complete Freelancer College will get a certificate. But to receive a “Master Freelancer Certification,” students will need to demonstrate a definable market niche that closely aligns with their own personal expertise, and demonstrates criteria such as:

  • Working with at least five clients per month
  • Generating at minimum of $50,000 every month for 12 months straight.

Ironically, those who manage to do this won’t really care about receiving the “Master Freelancer Certification.” That type of achievement will pale in comparison to their own real-world accomplishments.

Using other freelancers to help

Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you’re flying solo all the time.

The internet is a very sophisticated communications tool that enables us to align the needs of business with the talent of individuals in far more precise ways than ever before. So rather than employ a full-time person, companies will hire someone for two months, two weeks, two days or even 2 hours.

While our tools for working with this level of precision are not quite as efficient as they should be, it’s only a matter of time.

It will also be a short time before we’ll have services that pair freelancers with other freelancers. We only have so many hours in a day, so leveraging the talent of others will become a routine part of every free agent’s toolbox.

Companies are also losing the restrictive notions of “place.” For many, the need for a physical location is either dwindling or disappearing. Business is becoming very fluid in how it operates, and the driving force behind this liquefaction is a digital marketplace that connects buyers with sellers more efficiently.

Final Thoughts

I often think about the Ritz Carlton motto, "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen."

People who hire freelancers have respect for abilities. At the same time, with any good relationship, you’ll have respect for the work they’re trying to accomplish.

Over time you’ll be able to influence the nature of projects, as well as the path to accomplishment, and take pride in your achievements.

Rather than settling for whoever wanted to hire you, you have the ability to migrate to the top quickly, avoiding all the infighting and office politics involved in climbing the corporate ladder, sway people’s thinking, and make a meaningful difference along the way.

No, being a freelancer doesn’t come with health insurance, vacation time or a 401k plan. But what it does offer is far greater.

You’re in control so you get to decide who you want as a client, when you’re available for work, and most often, how much you’ll get paid. Yes, sometimes you’ll get fired from a project, but you can also fire your client.

Freelancing done right will give you a far higher salary, a far more influential circle of friends, and most importantly, the ability to make a difference.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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